The Sierra-Texupan Codex: Three Cultural Traditions, Two Writing Systems, and One Shopping List

Europeans, speaking Spanish, Italian and French, had to communicate with indigenous peoples through Nahuatl, the lingua franca under the Aztecs.

By Dr. Jesús Barrientos
Professor and Associate Researcher
University of Puebla

Once the dust settled after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the year 1521, a new government system was established in Mesoamerica, the region spanning present-day Mexico and Central America. That was the New Spain Viceroyalty. Culturally speaking, this change of administration was especially complicated for the Spaniards because the Aztecs had dominated over a population of seven million in more than three hundred cities in the southeastern part of the region, comprised of the Otomi, Totonac, Mixtec and other peoples. Each and every one of these peoples had languages and dialects of their own. Now Europeans, speaking Spanish, Italian and French, had to communicate with indigenous peoples through Nahuatl, the lingua franca under the Aztecs, while trying to introduce a writing system employing the Latin alphabet to local populations. How did scribes in the region deal with the challenge in communication?

The present manuscript is of Mixtec origin, made in the highlands of Oaxaca at the Santa Catalina Texupan community; it is the only extant ‘community cash book’ in Mexico and contains the local declaration of incomes and expenses from 1551 to 1564. The manuscript is composed of 62 sheets of European paper and measures 30.7 by 21.8 centimetres. It is bound in codex form, with writing on both the recto and verso of folios, in contrast to traditional Mixtec books made of deerskin and folded in concertina form.

Fig. 1: MS Sierra Texupan, page 59, according to the pagination given in the manuscript. The last 14 pages of the codex are divided into three columns, with the pictograms and Nahuatl writing in separate columns; the box in the upper left corner displays the celebration of Easter and the Holy Spirit.

The pages are divided into two or three columns, and feature up to seven horizontal sections (fig. 1). In the left-most column, pictograms represent purchased objects and the amount of expenses. The date of the transactions, specifically the years, are written with Mixtec glyphic numbers based on a vigesimal system, while descriptions of the objects are written employing the Latin alphabet, mainly in Nahuatl, with some words like  visorrey  (viceroy) in Spanish. In the column on the right, the cost for each item (or set of items) is represented with Arabic numbers, followed by scribal abbreviations of the words peso and tomin (an eighth of a peso) to indicate the currency, but there are also some pages where Roman numerals are used instead of Arabic numbers. This change of the numeric system might seem random, but it could be due to the involvement of multiple scribes (seven in total) who continuously worked on the manuscript during the fourteen years of its making. Their names appear throughout the codex (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Page 57. One Alonso de Castro is named as the ‘escrivano’ (scribe), along with the ‘nahuatlatos’ Salazar and Andrés (the Spanish to Nahuatl translators). The Nahuatl text reads: ‘Twelve pesos were paid to the scribe named Alonso de Castro, and the translators named Salazar and Andrés, to cover their travelling expenses to this town and the making of this document today, Wednesday, April 20th [1563]’.

The preservation of indigenous languages through the use of the Latin alphabet was largely the work of Franciscan missionaries, who founded schools to teach indigenous peoples how to read and write, as well as the crafts of carpentry, leatherwork and blacksmithing, and the Christian religion. The missionaries were predominantly Spanish in origin, but their education and ideology were strongly influenced by the Flemish Renaissance. As a result, they transmitted (perhaps unintentionally) these influences in their writing lessons, as can be seen in colonial codices from the early 16th century. In the Sierra-Texupan Codex, there is evidence of calligraphy styles such as Flemish secretary-hand and Rotunda blackletter (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Page 48. On the bottom, the date ‘Mes augusto 1561 años’ (August, 1561) is written in Rotunda blackletter, highlighting the ending of the page (the preceding text is written in Flemish secretary hand).

Scribes also faced the challenge of finding visual representations for concepts that did not exist previously in the Mesoamerican cultural sphere, which they had to create from scratch. In many places in the manuscript, the scribes implemented their own pictographic tradition, such as on page 8, where the acquisitions from the first part of 1553 are listed (fig. 4). These included the purchase of 190 sheep for 70 pesos – considering that sheep did not arrive in Oaxaca until the middle of the 16th century, it is not difficult to guess that the scribe had to observe and abstract the shape of a new, if not exotic, animal in his world. Another example can be found in the depiction of skeins of silk produced and sold by locals, in records for the fourteenth part of the year 1561 (fig. 5). Besides silk, the manuscript contains representations of other products such as olive oil, wine, cheese, eggs, chickens, mats, seats, candles and supplies for ceremonies.

Fig. 4: Page 8. A vigesimal calculation in Mixtec fashion: three times 20 (the big coins with the red flags on top) plus ten smaller coins make a total of 70 pesos. Sheep and shepherd are depicted at the left.

Without a doubt, the best example of the syncretic re-conceptualisation of words was the depiction of the names of the Catholic saints. The very town Santa Catalina Texupan is named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria (‘Texupan’ means ‘blue land’), who is usually represented in the European tradition by a wooden wheel associated with her martyrdom. But that torture apparatus was never used in Mesoamerica, so the visual representation of her name in the manuscript – in mentions of Santa Catalina the town – was something imagined by the Mixtec scribes (fig. 6). Something similar happened in the case of Saint Peter, whose name is associated in the Catholic tradition with a pair of keys, which previously had no meaning in Mesoamerica because there were no locks before the Spanish arrival. Whenever his name is referred to in the text, we witness a recently made-up glyph. In the case of Saint Paul, the scribes found a traditional Mesoamerican image which corresponded to a European symbol – the name of the saint is depicted with a sword which closely resembles the ceremonial stone swords of the Mixtec. All of these examples reveal the mastery of Mesoamerican scribes, who had to construct new symbols or re-adapt old ones to signify things that did not exist previously in their cultural imagination.

Fig. 5: Page 47. During the second half of the 16th century, the production of silk in Mesoamerica commenced in towns of the Puebla-Oaxaca region, which had the advantage of warm weather; but the sericulture industry never really took off.

Finally, we must make note of the colours that were applied with European techniques such as gouache. Black ink imported from Europe was used for the text and the outline of the pictograms, while sepia was used to make corrections; also present is a mineral yellow made of arsenic and sulphur, with a recipe dating from the pre-Hispanic era, which in combination with grey produced pale tones of green. Most peculiar of all the colours is a red hue, obtained from mixing vermilion (made from mercuric sulfide) with crimson cochineal, a pigment made from wood lice in cactuses. The resulting red colour is almost impossible to imitate. The formula, combining animal and mineral ingredients, also represents a subtle merger of Old and New World traditions.

Fig. 6: Page 6. This image relates the organisation of a festival dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria (after whom Santa Catalina Texupan is named), and depicts the purchase of wine, cacao beans and turkeys for the celebration. The name of the saint appears on the left, above the turkey.

The manuscript is not only a good specimen of how native economic organisation in the Mixtec area worked, but it also tells us about the complexity of early colonial manuscripts in Mexico. Both writing and drawing complemented each other to fulfill storytelling tasks. Letters were not subordinate to images, and nor were images to letters: rather, they formed a coherent whole, a clear example of the cultural syncretism of colonial Mesoamerica.


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Originally published by the University of Hamburg, 12.2017, under an open access license, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.